R&D Memo: The Best Offense
Israeli commercial airliners will be making beautiful music in the not-too-distant future. However, it is not a new sound system that’s going to be installed on the Boeings and Airbuses of El Al, Israir and Arkia, but MUSIC—Multi-Spectral Infrared Countermeasure Systems—created by the El-Op subsidiary of Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest private defense contractor.
Development of MUSIC, designed to protect Israeli civilian planes against the threat of terrorist attack by shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, started in early 2008. When it is operational, which could be as early as next year, it will replace antimissile defenses that, according to Israeli press sources, are currently installed on at least some civilian airliners.
These missile defense systems have not been officially identified. But it is common knowledge that, since a 2002 abortive Al Qaeda missile attack on an Arkia Boeing over Mombasa, Kenya, some El Al planes have been equipped with Flight Guard, an adaptation of antimissile systems from government-owned Rafael Arms Development Authority (now Rafael Advance Defense Systems) and radar specialist Elta Systems, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).
There are a number of reasons for the switch to MUSIC, one of several new Israeli defense products whose developments have been pushed forward in the aftermath of the 2006 Second Lebanon War. According to reports from the British Broadcasting Corporation and Germany’s Der Speigel newspaper, some nations refuse to allow planes with Flight Guard to enter their airspace for fear that the red-hot flares released to draw away heat-seeking enemy missiles will cause fires if they fall to the ground. Oddly, one of the objectors is Switzerland, despite a foiled 2006 terrorist plot to shoot down an El Al airliner in Swiss airspace.
The second reason for the switch may be efficiency: MUSIC, according to El-Op, is capable of responding to barrages of up to 1,000 missiles at a time, far beyond Flight Guard’s capacity. Work on MUSIC, which uses lasers to “blind” missile guidance systems, began about four years ago, specifically for helicopters, says Yisrael Anschel, an El-Op official.
The decision to strengthen defenses of Israeli flag carriers—and to have all planes entering Israeli airspace equipped with positive identification to minimize the danger of a 9/11-style attack from unidentified or hijacked airplanes—was directly connected with Israel’s September 2007 raid on a suspected nuclear facility under construction in Syria and fears that Damascus could use a terrorist proxy to retaliate. The fears were magnified with the killing of Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Mugniyah, ostensibly by an Israeli bomb, in February 2008.
There is no shortage of weaponry for such an attack. According to a 2007 study by the Federation of American Scientists, terrorist groups, criminals and insurgents in at least 17 countries have Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS, as the shoulder-fired weapons are called. “Nearly a million missiles have been produced by over 20 countries, and thousands of these missiles are now outside government control,” says FAS official Matt Schneider.
Civilian airliners are not the only assets israel is seeking to defend against missiles. In mid-2007, Israel began equipping some Merkava Mark IVs—known as the battle tank that offers the best protection for its crew—with Trophy, a system that guards against antitank rockets capable of piercing heavy armor plating. Completed in April 2007, Trophy was late in coming: Dozens of Israeli tanks were damaged by direct hits from Hezbollah rockets in the 2006 war.
The inner workings of Trophy, developed jointly by Rafael-Elta in cooperation with American defense contractor General Dynamics, are classified inside Israel, but according to publications such as Jane’s Defence Weekly and Defense Update, Trophy sends out a “beam” of tiny explosive fragments to intercept incoming rocket-propelled grenades and heavier missiles.
Trophy is slated for installation in the Namer (which means leopard in Hebrew), the Israel Defense Forces’ armored personnel carrier (APC) of the future, and in American-made Stryker vehicles when they are acquired by the IDF. Trophy was also chosen in 2005 for the Sheriff, a next-generation American APC. Shortly after the Lebanon war, however, the United States military rejected Trophy in favor of a competing system produced by the American firm Raytheon.
Major General Jeffrey Sorenson, a top American Army official involved in acquisition and systems development, justified the decision by claiming Trophy was not operational. “If this thing was ready to go, why wasn’t it on the particular tanks that went into Lebanon?” he asked.
Israel hopes the United States will give Trophy another chance. “The Americans prefer their own manufacturers,” says Rafael official Didi Ben-Yoash, “and are willing to pay the price of waiting a few years till it is ready.”
Even more significantly, steps have been taken to deal with the threats of short-range Qassam rockets that Palestinian terrorists in Gaza use to bombard southern Israel, particularly the town of Sderot, and middle-range Katyusha, Fajr and Zilzal rockets, which Hezbollah fired on the north in 2006.
After years of american-israeli cooperation on the Nautilus laser gun, later called Skyguard, Israel’s Ministry of Defense changed directions. In February 2006, the ministry opted for Iron Dome, created by Rafael. Iron Dome uses missiles to shoot down Qassams. One advantage of Iron Dome is that it couples existing Israeli military radar with its firing system and could be ready for deployment in less than two years.
Protection from rockets with longer ranges than the Qassam is also on the way. Since 2006, engineers at Rafael and Raytheon have been working on David’s Sling, which is designed to intercept and shoot down rockets fired from 25 to 50 miles away. This would include Katyushas, 4,000 of which were fired on the Galilee in 2006; Iranian-made Raad, Fajr and Zilzal rockets; as well as other weapons that could be launched from Syria. Raytheon officials say David’s Sling will be in full production by 2011.
Iran was at the top of the agenda during a June 2008 visit of United States Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But there was also a review of progress on Israel’s multitier rocket-defense systems: Iron Dome, David’s Sling and the already deployed Arrow, the only operational antimissile missile system developed with Israeli technology and American funding.
“When deployment of the three systems is in place,” says Labor Knesset member and former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, “I believe that the citizens of Israel will have perfect protection.”
Missile protection is not the only area in which Israel’s defense industry, the world’s fourth largest with arms’ exports of $4.7 billion in 2007, continues to turn out innovative armaments. In 2007, defense contractors—and their main customer, the IDF—unveiled a variety of systems right out of sci-fi novels.
Among them is VIPeR (Versatile Intelligent Portable Robot), a miniature remote-controlled vehicle the size of the average television set that can be sent into dangerous or inaccessible places. The manufacturer, Elbit, says it is “undeterred by stairs, rubble, dark alleys, caves or narrow tunnels.” VIPeR, which has tank-like treads and can be fitted with bomb- and personnel-detecting equipment, explosive charges or a 99-mm Uzi submachine gun, weighs about 25 pounds and can be carried on the back of one soldier. An unnamed defense official quoted by the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper calls VIPeR “an operational tool that will revolutionize counterterrorism.” The unmanned vehicle might also be of use in dealing with underground Hezbollah installations in border villages, which gave IDF forces so much grief in the 2006 conflict.
Even before the Second Lebanon War, Elbit and IAI were both working on unmanned robot-controlled surface vehicles (USVs) for border patrols and protecting security installation perimeters. The Ministry of Defense pressed Elbit, maker of AvantGuard, and IAI, which developed Guardium, to join forces. They produced a single line of vehicles under the rubric of G-NIUS Unmanned Ground Systems. The vehicle, says Erez Peled, general manager of G-NIUS, can be operated remotely “by any kid who grew up with a PlayStation.”
There had been hints that the vehicles are ready to be deployed on the Gaza frontier, though the IDF is not confirming anything. (The Army has said, however, that several unmanned machine-gun posts, controlled from a distance via a joystick, are operational in Gaza.)
Israel’s long-time leadership in developing unmanned aerial vehicles (the country’s UAVs have been purchased by many major armies and were reportedly in service with American forces in Iraq) was enhanced in October 2007 when the Israel Air Force unveiled the Eitan, its largest UAV. About the size of a Boeing 737 and with a wingspan of about 90 feet and a payload of four tons, the Eitan is capable of launching rockets to intercept enemy missiles at or near launch sites and releasing smart munitions aimed at ground targets.
At the other end of the size spectrum, Elbit, together with General Dynamics, in April unveiled Skylark II, an upgraded mini-UAV with an electric motor that makes it capable of silent surveillance.
Also new to the Israeli arsenal, and unveiled in October 2007, is SPICE—Stand-Off Precision Munitions—a guidance system that uses digital imaging rather than conventional positioning and radar techniques to direct bombs to targets. SPICE-equipped munitions can fly silently, without motors or detectable guidance systems, to distant targets.
The most intriguing new high-tech gadget, however, does not come from government-owned or private defense contractors. Xaver, a portable radar-like system that “sees” through walls, is made by Herzliya-based startup Camero. Xaver uses ultra-wideband radio waves—other kinds of waves do not pass through walls—to capture and produce 3-D images at a distance of up to 20 yards.
The system is ideal for use by rescue units, according to Aharon Aharon, Camero’s founder and chief executive officer. “When disaster victims must be rescued from a collapsed building or a fire, time is of the essence,” he says, noting that firemen and other relief teams risk their lives by entering dangerous places even when they are not sure anyone is still alive inside.
The latest model of the device, released last April, weighs six pounds and is slightly smaller than an average laptop computer. It is designed for law enforcement and military uses and has clients worldwide.
Superman, move over. H